Into the Virtual Woods: Can a Video Game Feel Like Being in Nature?

More than a century and a half after Walden, the benefits of slowing down and communing with nature are clearer than ever. But can we get them through a video game?

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved to the shores of Massachusetts’s Walden Pond to live, as he famously put it, “deliberately.” As we celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, his classic text Walden lives on as a manifesto for the virtues of solitude and self-reliance, assigned in high schools and quoted by polemicists railing against our digital age. But perhaps no one of late has so deeply engaged with Thoreau’s masterwork as Tracy Fullerton, a video game designer and the director of the University of Southern California’s video game innovation lab. Her new video game adaptation of the book, available for PC and Mac, lets players aim for heightened states of relaxation and transcendentalist epiphanies.

I went to meet Fullerton, 52, recently at her USC lab, curious to know how she’d pulled off the unlikely feat of transforming a work of 19th-century philosophy into a “playable experience.” In 2002, on the verge of burnout after having shut down a company, she picked up the book for at least the third time and went to Walden Pond on a quiet, rainy day. “I just thought, What if I could make a game where everyone could come and play Walden?”

It would take an additional five years for Fullerton to actually try. Only after she’d completed the video game The Night Journey, a collaboration with artist Bill Viola in which players strive for spiritual enlightenment, did she feel prepared to tackle Thoreau. Fullerton’s Walden is a richly detailed world that opens in summer and proceeds through the New England seasons. There is no winning, and there is no dying, but there is “fainting,” if one does not attend to such basic needs as food and shelter. Every day is an exercise in conscious choice: You could, for instance, choose to forage for berries or build your shelter, but if you work all the time, you risk losing your “inspiration.” And, should you become uninspired, the game reflects that sad outlook back at you: The colors fade, and the soundtrack—instrumental music layered with the tweeting of birds and the rustling of leaves—thins out. Life becomes dull. But inspiration levels are quickly replenished by paying close attention to the natural environment. When a player zooms in on a leaf or a bird or a berry, a note pops up containing Thoreau’s original description of what he saw in the woods and inspiration rebounds.

Fullerton’s impulse to return us to the proverbial woods, to remind us to slow down and look around, comes at a timely moment. Judging from a spate of books and articles, there is widespread interest in bowing out of our technology-saturated, hyperconnected lives, if only for an hour or two. “We’re losing our connection to nature more dramatically than ever before,” argues journalist Florence Williams in her new book, The Nature Fix (W. W. Norton), in which she investigates the science behind how nature affects mental and physical health. Williams discovers a burgeoning research scene in the U.S.: Studying the health benefits of nature today is akin to studying the benefits of exercise at the beginning of the 1990s. Leading the way, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, at the University of Michigan, developed what they called the attention restoration theory, arguing that the optimum way to rest the technology-addled brain and expand focus is through scenes of “soft fascination,” like watching a sunset or a rainstorm.

Outside the U.S., Williams shows, the science is farther along, and on its strength, countries like Finland and South Korea have rolled out government programs for bringing citizens to designated natural areas. In South Korea, the country with the highest suicide rate in the world, these are known as “healing forests,” and Korean researchers have already shown that a two-week visit lifts crucial immune-boosting T cells in women with breast cancer. In a Japanese study Williams cites, subjects who spent the night inhaling the scent of cypress trees saw a 20 percent increase in their immune-system boosting NK cells, which have been powerfully tied to longevity. Laying out the research from around the world, Williams demonstrates that even sporadic doses of nature significantly increase attention, creativity, and happiness, to say nothing of the advantages to physical health.

The question remains: Can we hope to reap these benefits virtually? Fullerton sees no irony in her use of technology to combat the ills of technology. She is hardly alone in this view: There’s a growing trend of techno-enthusiasts attempting to transport us to the woods via our screens. Witness companies like Mure VR, an Icelandic start-up bringing nature scenes in virtual reality to cooped-up office workers. Just as Thoreau went to the woods to “live deliberately,” Fullerton believes we can apply the same deliberateness to our devices. “Technology should serve our purposes, not the other way around,” she says. “I think the same technology that has been part of the speeding up of life can also be a part of its slowing down.”

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A chronology of video games that encourage tranquil cogitation

Myst (1993)
The original pensive puzzle game emerges sui generis from an industry subsisting on shoot-’em-ups and remains the best-selling computer game for a decade. Play the remake on Steam.

Shadow of the Collosus (2005)
Leaves players to wander across immense, barren landscapes with little more than a horse, their thoughts, and a vague sense of purpose to guide them. On PlayStation 2, 3, and soon 4.

Dark Souls (2011)
Behind its ghoulish violence and existential dread, this game tells a meditative tale that players piece together only by serene observation of environmental clues. On PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Journey (2012)
This spectacular, wordless experience—a sublime riff on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s quest—submerges players in the ambiguities of the collective unconscious. On PS3 and 4.

Monument Valley (2014)
A master class in minimalist, subdued design, this mobile game hinges on “aha” moments of cerebral perspective shift, like an Escher drawing come to life. On iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

Obduction (2016)
More than 20 years after creating Myst, brothers Rand and Robyn Miller recapture its sense of introspective exploration via the newest form of storytelling: virtual reality. On Mac, Oculus Rift, PC, and HTC Vive.